I am not afraid to admit when was I was wrong. And when it comes to texting...I was wrong. I did not start to text until a couple of years ago when I finally got an iPhone. Now part of the reason for the delay was technical. I didn’t have a smart phone and the phone I had was not user friendly when it came to texting.
But the main reason was that I was just turned off by texting. I didn’t want to type on a tiny little keyboard. I couldn’t stand all the shorthand language used in texting – the abbreviations used for phrases. The compressed nature of texting perpetuates bad grammar and bad writing. And to be honest, I just didn’t understand how it could be useful. If the whole point of having a cell phone was that you could call from anywhere at any time, why would I want to fumble with a tiny little key board when I could just call the person?
Now that I do use texting, I still don’t like the tiny little keyboard. I still don’t like the way it compresses language and fosters bad habits in writing. But I have to admit that I was wrong about its usefulness. I have found that there are indeed times and settings when I want to communicate something but making a phone call is impossible or inappropriate. I have found that there are some kinds of information and questions that are easier to share in a brief text than in making a phone call.
And I have learned that there are some people for whom a text is a huge time saver. You know the kind of person I am talking about – the person for whom there is no such thing as a short conversation; the person with whom you get started into a conversation and then you find yourselves looking for polite ways to bring the conversation to a close so that you can move on to other things you need to do. There are times and situations when we really can’t let ourselves be delayed by a long discussion or visit. And in those cases a text message communicates, but prevents us from getting hung up in a long phone conversation.
Paul is doing something similar in our second reading this morning from Acts chapter 20. He is in a hurry to get to Jerusalem as he sails along the cost of the Mediterranean. This is going to mean making a stop at Ephesus, where he had engaged in ministry for nearly three years. He knows lots of people there, and they are going to want to visit with him. But Paul doesn’t have time to get hung up in a long visit. And so instead, he has the pastors of the area come out to Miletus – the port city for Ephesus. He has some final brief words that he wants to share with them – some words of farewell – and so he arranges things to keep it brief.
Paul is headed to Jerusalem, and he is under no illusions about what awaits him there. Just before our text he says, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” The Holy Spirit has been revealing that difficult times await Paul. And yet Paul says that this is not doing to dissuade him from going. Instead, he tells the pastors, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
And so in the expectation that he will never see them again, Paul does two things in this farewell address. First, he describes how he had conducted himself during his ministry in Ephesus. And second, he exhorts the pastors of the Ephesus area to follow the model he has provided by his own ministry. He tells them to be faithful in their ministry, just as Paul has, and to keep watch because false teachers are going to arise after Paul is gone.
Paul begins our text by saying, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” This actually isn’t a great place to start the reading because it cuts off Paul’s statement from what it is explaining. The whole thought is this: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” The apostle says that he is not responsible for anyone who may be lost because he did what he was supposed to do – he shared the whole counsel or plan of God. He told them the whole truth.
It’s the same thing that Paul said just prior to the start of our text. Using the exact same language he said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul says that he didn’t hold back. He gave them the whole message. He confronted them with the need for repentance toward God, and for faith in Jesus Christ. We could just as easily say that he gave them Law and Gospel. And now, the pastors gathered at Miletus have been charged with doing the same thing.
They have this responsibility because God has placed them to care for his flock. In our text Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” It is not that the pastors have put themselves in charge. Instead, working through his Church, the Spirit had made the overseers. He had placed them to care for the Church – literally “to shepherd” her. They were to be pastors – shepherds of the flock that didn’t belong to them. Instead, the flock belonged to God because they had been obtained with the blood of Christ – by his suffering and death.
There would be a need to do this, not just because of sin in general. Paul told them, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” False teachers would come in from outside the Church, and would even rise from inside the Church. And so Paul charged them, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”
What we hear in our text this morning is a warning about our world and a description of what you are to expect out of your pastor – what you are to expect of me. Paul describes a world where it is not easy to be a Christian. There are threats from the outside – from the world and its sinful ways. There are threats on the inside – from those who want to twist the truth of God’s Word. And so the charge to the pastor is to care for the flock. It is to avoid shrinking back from declaring the whole counsel of God – the message of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. It is to keep watch and admonish, even when this involves tears.
It was hard to do this in Paul’s day. Paul ministered in a world that swirled with all kinds of religious beliefs. Paganism was everywhere, and the spirit of the age said that you could pick and choose, and combine those beliefs however you wanted. He ministered in a world where there were almost no limits on the use of sex; a world where homosexuality was just another way people used sex. He ministered in a world of unspeakable cruelty, where life was cheap.
It’s not hard to recognize that I have just described our own world. The parallels in our setting between the first century and twenty-first century are uncanny. And that makes things hard. You are tempted to think that what you believe doesn’t really matter, as long as it is sincerely held. You are tempted to think that the highest good is you and your happiness – however you choose to define it. So there is no reason why you shouldn’t have sex whenever and with whomever you wish. You are tempted to put your needs and wants ahead of anyone else because the only thing that is really wrong is anything thing that hinders your pursuit of being happy. After all, you deserve your best life now.
Because that is the situation in which you live, God has charged pastors with declaring the whole counsel of God; he has charged them with declaring repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. The repentance part can be hard. People don’t like to be told that they are wrong. They really don’t want to hear it when they can easily go out into the world and find affirmation of what they are doing. But this is not truth. It is not the will of God. It is self-deception. It is self-destructive delusion.
And so God charges pastors to speak no matter what reaction they receive. They are to speak the Law. Where people refuse to repent and instead want to hold onto their sin, that is exactly what they are left with – their sin. They are left with sin that cuts them off from God – eternally if they don’t repent.
But those who confess their sin; who seek to turn away from it; and who ask for forgiveness find that they are indeed people that God has redeemed with the blood of Jesus Christ. They find that God is the gracious God who forgives the sins of those who don’t deserve forgiveness, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just before our text Paul describes his ministry as one that testifies “to the gospel of the grace of God.” Here in our text Paul says, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
This is the message that pastors are to proclaim. But the Christian life is not merely a perpetual cycle of sin, repentance and forgiveness. True, as long as we live as fallen people in a fallen world we will never escape this reality. Yet the life of faith also moves outside of itself and serves others. Indeed, Paul says at the end of our text, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Because we have received God’s grace in Christ – his undeserved gift of forgiveness and life – we now seek to share this grace with others. We seek to share the unmerited love of God with others in the place and time in which we live.